Australia have backed the pace of Brett Lee and Shaun Tait to spearhead their bowling attack in their quest for a fourth straight title in the One Day World Cup in the subcontinent, starting later this month.
“Brett, Tait and Mitchell Johnson together could be key bowlers in those subcontinental conditions,” says skipper Ricky Ponting. “It would be pretty exciting as a captain to have them to call on. Hopefully, Tait and Lee can both be right.”
While it is only expected that teams will play to their strengths—Australia have traditionally relied on pace—the world’s most successful One Day side’s focus on bowlers has triggered a debate on the type of bowling that could impact the third World Cup to be held in South Asia. India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will jointly host the 10th edition of the quadrennial competition from 19 February.
Pace race: (clockwise from left) Bowlers Brett Lee of Australia; Lasith Malinga of Sri Lanka; and Zaheer Khan of India.
Top-ranked Australia’s bowling choice is in direct contrast to that of co-favourites India, the world’s second-ranked team, who have picked a third specialist spinner at the expense of a batsman in their 15-member squad.
“We took everything into consideration. The conditions, the opponents... everything that we need to win,” chief selector Krishnamachari Srikkanth said after the selection committee chose leg-spinner Piyush Chawla and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin for a spin attack led by the experienced off-spinner Harbhajan Singh.
India’s decision to go with a third specialist spinner in a squad that already has four medium-pacers is clearly influenced by the region’s unique conditions, with low, slow pitches traditionally assisting spin. The dry conditions, however, are also expected to assist fast bowlers, especially those who can reverse- swing the old ball.
Strategic innovations over the years and technological advancement vis-à-vis protective gear and bats have resulted in high-scoring contests, with none less than 300-320 considered a challenging total. Although most teams play only four specialist bowlers to accommodate an extra batsman in the 50-over game, especially in the subcontinent, the bowling focus has moved steadily to quality. In the absence of a good all-rounder, the fifth bowler is usually a throw of dice with part-timers.
It is widely accepted that the most effective way to restrict a batting team in the modern game is by taking wickets, not just focusing on containing runs. Australia, who have won four of the nine World Cups so far, have steadfastly stuck to this strategy.
Interestingly, fast bowlers made tremendous impact in the two previous World Cups held in the subcontinent. In the 1987 edition, Craig McDermott emerged the highest wicket-taker (18) as Australia won their first world title. Pakistan’s Imran Khan was next, with 17 wickets, and West Indian Patrick Patterson third, with 14. In the 1996 edition, won by Sri Lanka, India’s Anil Kumble was the highest wicket-taker with 15 scalps. Leg-spinner Kumble never bowled the conventional way and was quick enough to hurry the batsman. Pakistan’s paceman Waqar Younis was next with 13 wickets and Australian pacer Damien Fleming was joint third along with two spinners with 12 wickets.
Express bowlers have always succeeded in the subcontinent owing to their airspeed—pace through the air—as it nullifies pitch conditions. If it is tricky business for batsmen to counter conventional swing at high pace with the new ball, it gets all the more difficult when the fast bowler comes back in the middle and end overs with the ball slightly old to get it to reverse-swing at speeds over 145 kmph.
Inevitably, captains call on their pace bowlers when things hot up in the “death” overs. Among spinners, only those of remarkable quality, like Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan or India’s Harbhajan Singh, have been called upon to bowl in these situations. Part-time spinners don’t have the ability to carry on if the batsman begins to give them the charge.
“I’d say without doubt that the team that bowls well as a unit is going to win this World Cup,” says former India stumper Nayan Mongia. “In the subcontinent, the wickets are placid and it’s going to be hard for the bowlers. Even part-timers need to be bowlers of quality.”
Lee has consistently bowled over 145 kmph since returning from a 15-month injury layoff and has been hailed as Australia’s inspiration for the World Cup by former captain Steve Waugh. “Lee will be my impact player. He has amazing resilience, he is bowling back at 150 kmph and he loves touring India,” Waugh says.
Australia selector Greg Chappell says Lee has also added variations to his bowling, making him doubly dangerous. “He has modified his bowling in recent years, added variety, and I think he is now a more complete bowler than at any stage in his career,” the former India coach says.
“He is still able to bowl at a speed that is up there with the fastest but with a control and variation that hasn’t been part of his armoury before.”
South Africa’s Dale Steyn is regarded as the best fast bowler in contemporary cricket and Sri Lanka are banking on Lasith Malinga’s firepower in a balanced attack as they aim for a repeat of their 1996 success.
Pakistan still have a clutch of quicks despite losing two of their premier bowlers to the spot-fixing scandal, while India will rely on the expertise of left-arm pacer Zaheer Khan, who is capable of generating considerable pace when he finds his rhythm.
Former Pakistan captain Aamer Sohail expects fast bowlers to play a major role in the forthcoming World Cup. “Conditions here assist spin, but fast bowlers will have a big role to play,” the combative former left-handed opener says.
“A batsman will have to sight the ball early if he has to hit through the line. Movement or sheer pace makes it difficult to do that. The subcontinent conditions do not always assist movement, but it is difficult to pick a fast bowler early at that pace to score.”
Former Indian all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar, who played both the previous World Cups in the subcontinent, says express pace always puts extra pressure on the batsman. “Swing at high speed is always difficult for a batsman, especially when he is looking to score in the initial overs,” says Prabhakar, who was the first among Indian pacers to reverse-swing the ball. “Movement off the wicket depends on the conditions. But quality spin and quality pace will have a say in this World Cup.”
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